Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Essentials #20: Devil May Cry

I've been playing video games for almost as long as I've been alive, having amused myself with the Atari 2600 before my family upgraded to the Nintendo Entertainment System. My obsession with Street Fighter II notwithstanding, however, I was more of a casual player through the 8-bit and 16-bit eras. It wasn't until the time of the Sony PlayStation, which I only picked up three years after its release for, naturally, a Street Fighter game, that I started to get really heavy into gaming, and my passion took a step further with the PlayStation 2. The first PS2 game I played was Capcom's Devil May Cry, and, in many respects, I still consider it to have been the console's defining title.

Released in October 2001, a year after the PS2's North American launch and during the same golden period as ICO, Grand Theft Auto 3, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and Final Fantasy X, Devil May Cry was one of the key titles that helped to establish the platform's position as, not only the market leader, but also the lead console for enthusiast gaming. Often classified as a "stylish" action game, it was praised at the time for having been the first title to take the fast pace and intuitive controls of classic 2-D action games and successfully bring them into 3-D, but it actually began life in the planning stages as a new installment in the comparatively slow-paced Resident Evil series of "survival horror" adventure games, before its creators, recognizing that it had gone off in a drastically different direction, decided to make it its own game and eventual franchise.

Shinji Mikami's Resident Evil series was--arguably still is--Capcom's ace franchise and had already inspired two sister series in Dino Crisis and Onimusha, so it was not surprising to see another game built off essentially that same foundation, and, even in the final product, it was not hard to spot Devil May Cry's survival horror origins. Directed by Hideki Kamiya of Resident Evil 2 fame, and produced by Mikami himself, Devil May Cry took place mostly within a castle that bore more than a few similarities to Resident Evil's mansion, although progress was now divided up into a series of finite missions. Basic Resident Evil-style l0ck-and-key devices in each mission guided the player's exploration of the structure, and, as always, the objective was less the point than was the experience of the directed journey to get there. In Devil May Cry, that experience was combat, and it was in that department that the game truly set itself apart as something distinct from survival horror.

Eschewing the digital character-relative tank controls common among its Capcom siblings, Devil May Cry utilized the analog stick exclusively and featured a player character that moved swiftly and intuitively. Controlling more like a beat 'em up character, he could jump and roll and perform a simple yet effective combo by pressing the attack button repeatedly. Holding R1 allowed the player to lock on to targets, or, against groups, one could rely on the auto-targeting to intelligently track nearby enemies. But equipping the player with just melee attacks would not nearly have been awesome enough, so the designers provided a selection of guns with infinite ammo to supplement the sword-swinging. The possibilities unlocked by the badass combination became immediately obvious the first time a player launched an enemy into the air and realized that it could be suspended there by juggling it with rapid-fire blasts from the dual pistols. Players would then be encouraged to explore and experiment with the extraordinarily deep combo system, which opened up even further once the player gained access to the "Devil Trigger," a meter which could be consumed to temporarily transform the main character into a faster and stronger demonic version of himself. The fixed cameras, meanwhile, would swivel about automatically to try and give the player the best possible view of the action within the real-time environments.

The extreme action offered by the game engine was matched with some superb art design highly evocative of the 1998 Wesley Snipes Blade film in the game's mix of the urban and the mystical and its supercool swords-and-guns aesthetic. The half-demon protagonist, Dante, a virtual rock star and maverick, charismatic and unflappable, was the very definition of cool and perhaps the best original character introduced during the PS2 generation. Devil May Cry was possibly the most gorgeous console game out at the time of its release, and, while people go on and on about the "uncanny valley" these days, Dante and his sexy female companion, Trish, exuded visual personality in the in-engine cut scenes through their striking character designs. And things only got better with the addition of some exquisitely cheesy dialogue. The over-the-top nature of the game was nowhere better exemplified than in the instantly classic opening sequence:

Being such a new and groundbreaking game, Devil May Cry had its share of flaws and rough edges. It sometimes experienced an identity crisis due to its Resident Evil origins, as wandering around the castle looking for obscure emblems could hinder the action and muddle the focus of the gameplay. The castle setting itself seemed at odds with the mission-based structure, as any sections that had been opened up in a previous mission would usually remain accessible during the immediate mission, and, even if the mission parameters did not require returning to those areas, it could be easy to veer accidentally off course and become lost. The AI-controlled camera wasn't always helpful, particularly during the occasional misguided platforming segments that put Dante's limited jumping abilities to the test. And, to remind players that the game designers were experimenting with this new property, there were some truly bizarre moments of gameplay that departed, not only from survival horror, but from the stylish action of the rest of the game. Some awful first-person underwater stages were just the tip of the iceberg. The climactic boss fight inexplicably dispensed with the combo-based engine in favor of a Space Harrier-style rail shooter stage unlike anything else in the game. That fight was followed up by a second phase that played somewhat like the G.I. Joe arcade game or maybe those behind-the-back stages in Contra. When all that was finally over with, Dante still had to make his escape by piloting a biplane off the island while avoiding or shooting down falling debris from the crumbling castle. For God's sake, these were the moments that the entire game had been building up to?!

Perhaps in a nod to classic 2-D action games, Devil May Cry also boasted a high level of difficulty, unusually so, in fact, for such a high-profile title of that era. While Dante's slick moves would be sufficient to make sport of the early packs of marionette monsters, the difficulty ramped up considerably with the first real boss, a giant talking spider named Phantom. Phantom could take a beating and dish it right back, decimating Dante in just a few hits. Simply charging in head-on was a sure way to die, and I imagine more than a few players were surprised and frustrated after having been led by the marketing to expect a dressed-up hack-and-slash with a cool and powerful hero to control. Yet Devil May Cry was peculiar in that it was an action game that actually let the player grind their way to victory, thanks to the development system which allowed the player to buy new abilities and health upgrades using red orbs dropped by enemies. The system could be exploited by simply saving the game via the pause menu any time death seemed imminent. Then, while loading that save would start the player back at the beginning of the stage, all of the orbs collected would be preserved, and, eventually, the player would have enough stored up to purchase the skills and power-ups that would hopefully get them through to the next stage. If that still wasn't enough, the game also offered an easier difficulty level if it detected that the player was struggling early on. Taking that option barred the player from unlocking any of the post-game rewards, so I stuck with the normal mode, but I've heard quite a few players say that they went the easy route and ended up thoroughly enjoying the game, so it must have worked pretty well.

As for those rewards I spoke of, actually the only thing beating the normal difficulty unlocked was an option to carry over your powered-up Dante into a second playthrough. Like the successive playthroughs in Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, this second round was actually a much harder mode featuring new enemy placements, often populating once straightforward areas with far deadlier foes, and more aggressive bosses that had about three times their old stamina. Dante himself, meanwhile, was much frailer despite starting out with a life bar that was hopefully enhanced during the first playthrough. In fact, one of my biggest complaints about the game was that, rather than having the upgrades feel like enhancements, Dante actually only ever seemed complete while he had his full abilities, especially since, even fully-powered up for the second round, the game was still not easy. Looking back at the early stages the first time around, the gameplay was so much more limited without all the extra moves and options, and it would have been a shame if a player had come away with impressions based on just the neutered Dante. In any case, beating this harder mode then unlocked a difficulty select option for future playthroughs and, more attractive to me, a brand new outfit for Dante.

Unlockable alternate costumes were not exactly a new concept, but, for some reason, I just had to have this one. I couldn't find any pictures or video of it on the pre-YouTube Internet, but I'd heard it described as a purple "Victorian" coat and monocle, and the costume apparently came with its own exclusive battle theme music as well. This all sounded cool to me, so I dedicated myself to completing the hard mode, even though, at the time, I hardly ever played through single-player games multiple times and basically never ventured beyond the normal difficulty level of a game. In this case, I was glad I did, because it was only in playing that harder mode that I realized the true genius of Devil May Cry.

Taking things back for a moment to Street Fighter, as I am often wont to do, skill in fighting games is sometimes broken down into "technique" and "strategy." "Technique" describes a player's manual ability to perform tricky combos when it counts, as well as one's timing and intuitive sense to beat an opponent on the draw, for example, when an exchange appears imminent. "Strategy," on the other hand, describes a player's informed grasp of a game's flow and ability to exploit the game-specific mechanics. It can involve something simple like picking the right character to counter an opponent's choice, or, in Street Fighter II, the classic example would be throwing a fireball, not expecting the slow-moving projectile to hit the opponent, but hoping that its presence will pressure them into jumping over it and setting themselves up as planned for your next move.

I bring all this up because Devil May Cry, although a single-player action game, understood these two sides to skill and invited both approaches and all the mixes in between. For the technical players, the rich combo system challenged them, not only to construct techniques that would decimate enemies, but also to push for the highest grade on the game's dynamic scoring system. That's not the sort of player I am. No, I'm more the kind of guy that prefers to win as cheaply as possible. Fortunately, Devil May Cry had my back as well, and, quite unlike most 2-D action games, its incredibly versatile engine allowed almost all fights to be handled in a variety of ways. Overcoming tougher enemies required pattern recognition, but, once on offense, which Devil May Cry did revel in and reward, the game did not lock the player into one "correct" strategy that had to be perceived and executed to perfection. In that moment of opportunity after reading and evading an enemy's move, it would be up to the player how best to respond both according to Dante's vast arsenal and the individual player's ability. As the game progressed into ever more complicated boss battles, inventiveness and improvisation could serve a player just as well as technical virtuosity. For the Phantom fight, for example, I discovered on the normal difficulty that I could simply activate my Devil Trigger while equipped with the lightning blade Alastor, and that would allow me to fly into the air and spam the projectile lightning attack to zap the spider with impunity until he died, actually bypassing the pattern recognition phase altogether. On hard mode, that strategy went out the window, as Phantom's greatly increased health turned the fight into a marathon, and the Devil Trigger simply didn't last long enough for the lightning to put a dent into him. Faced with this sudden conundrum, I was eventually driven to experiment with Dante's alternative melee weapon, the fiery Ifrit gauntlets, which I had rudely dismissed during my first playthrough, despite their high attack power, on account of their slowness and Dante's reduced mobility while equipped with them.

I discovered that, while the hard mode bosses' tripled life bars rendered most attacks puny, Ifrit still packed some punch. More specifically, I discovered Ifrit's Devil Trigger mode "Inferno" move, Dante's strongest attack, a do-or-die maneuver that activated mid-jump and involved nothing more than crash-landing onto an enemy, searing it in an explosion of flames in the process. The sheer suicidal mechanics of the maneuver made it the most thrilling move I'd ever come across in any action game, but it was also perhaps the only thing that got me through hard mode. With a maxed-out Devil Trigger, the move could be performed three times before Dante reverted to his mostly defenseless human form, at which point I would basically just have to dodge attacks and taunt at every opportunity to restore my Devil Trigger meter so that I could perform it again. Of course, a better player might not have had to resort to those measures, but, hey, it worked for me and the game made me feel proud of myself for figuring out that strategy.

As for that costume, was it worth it? Probably not. The anachronistic getup, monocle and all, was just bizarre and nowhere near as cool as Dante's regular outfit. Some uncovered early concept art of the spiky-haired "Tony Redgrave" from the game's days as Resident Evil 4 suggested that it may have been a prototype design for Dante, since repurposed perhaps as the human form of Dante's father, the "legendary dark knight" Sparda, but the game itself made little suggestion as to its significance, if any. But, then again, as I discovered, the journey was worth more than the objective.

Although it was itself spawned from Resident Evil, Devil May Cry became more influential than the original Resident Evil. It doesn't quite get due credit these days for having practically founded the "character action game" genre that became the platformer of the PS2, inspiring hordes of disciples, imitators, and casual borrowers, but, to this day, it remains the title that all other like action games must be measured against, be they Bujingai or God of War.

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